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Published: Monday, 2/2/2004

Judge race to fill bigger bench

BY JAMES M. SIELICKI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A Republican and four Democrats, including the incumbent judge, are competing for one of two seats on an expanded Erie County Common Pleas bench in the March 2 primary.

Last fall, state lawmakers authorized creation of a fourth judgeship, opening a second seat on the Erie County general division bench, where civil and criminal cases are heard.

Erie County lawyers and the bar association, citing a backlog of cases that has bedeviled incumbent Ann Maschari, long have lobbied for another jurist.

The backlog of cases and her tardiness in preparing an annual case summary prompted a scolding from the state Supreme Court on at least two occasions.

Judge Maschari has served 18 years on the common pleas bench after working eight years as a law clerk for that court.

Judge Maschari is seeking re-election to a six-year term that begins on Jan. 1. The term for the new judgeship will begin Jan. 2.

“We are one of the busiest common pleas judges in the state,” she said, citing Erie County s judge-to-population ratio as the highest in Ohio.

In 2002, the last year records were available, 1,297 criminal and civil cases were filed in the court s general division, according to the Ohio Supreme Court s annual court summary.

Erie County has a population of 79,551, the highest number of people in a county with a single judge who handles general division cases, according to the court s annual summary.

In addition to resident population, Erie County s resort parks add to the number of seasonal criminal cases.

“We are working very hard,” she said.

Erie County has been innovative in its use of computers in the courtroom, alternative sentencing programs, and willingness to use community control programs over costlier incarceration for offenders.

“We are constantly looking for new programs out there,” she said.

Her opponent, Tygh Tone of Huron, is focusing on the pace of justice in her court.

“She has gotten some bad press over the years and I hope that works to my advantage,” said Mr. Tone, an attorney with a Sandusky law firm that his father founded 50 years ago.

Mr. Tone, a University of Toledo law school graduate, said he would implement a case-management system that would help clear the docket in a timely fashion.

This is his first time running for public office. Mr. Tone, an attorney for 14 years, worked as an assistant with former Lucas County Prosecutor Tony Pizza and served as clerk under retired Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Melvin Resnick, whom he considers his mentor.

“We need a judge who can cooperate” with attorneys and work to “clean up the backlog of civil cases,” he said

No Republicans have filed for that term, which means that the winner of the March primary will become judge.

For the new judgeship, Nancy Ogden-Dellisanti, magistrate for the common pleas court, faces Kevin Zeiher of Sandusky.

The winner of the primary will face Republican Roger Binette of Sandusky, an assistant Erie County prosecutor.

Mr. Zeiher, who has practiced law for 26 years, is president of the law firm Buckingham, Holzapfel, Zeiher, Waldock, and Schell, where he is head of the litigation department.

He decided not to run against the incumbent, saying the clean slate presented by a new judgeship was more attractive.

“This is a new judgeship and I can campaign on taking it in a new direction,” he said. “I can talk about bringing change in the court without stepping on toes.”

Realistically, the incumbent s name recognition also weighed in his decision. Six years ago, Republican Jim Hart, who Mr. Zeiher said “had a lot of credentials going for him,” was unsuccessful in trying to unseat Judge Maschari.

“It s difficult campaigning against a sitting judge. About all you can say is, I ll be fair and impartial, ” said Mr. Zeiher, citing judicial canons that govern the campaigns of jurists.

Mr. Zeiher is a 1977 graduate of the University of Dayton s law school.

His Democratic rival, Ms. Dellisanti of Huron, has been a magistrate for the general division since 1997, handling such civil and criminal duties as arraignments, criminal pretrial and drug-court proceedings.

For civil court, duties include some bench trials, mediations, pretrial hearings, and issuing civil stalking protection orders.

After her undergraduate years at the University of Toledo, she earned her law degree at the Ohio State University in 1989.

“To me it was a natural choice,” Ms Dellisanti said of her decision to seek the new judgeship. “I m very attached to the work. I feel we have some very excellent programs.

“I think my philosophy is firm but fair treatment,” she said.

An Erie County Common Pleas judge is paid $107,600 a year; all but $14,000 is paid by the state, county figures show.

Mr. Binette, the Republican candidate, said he announced his intention to run before the legislation cleared the Ohio General Assembly. “This is a new challenge and a new endeavor,” he said.

Mr. Binette has been an assistant county prosecutor since 1991. He is assigned full time to the regional drug task force.

His career in the Erie County criminal justice system began in 1981 as assistant director of the juvenile detention center. He received his law degree in 1991 from Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., and returned to Erie County to join the prosecutor s office.

Mr. Binette continues a small civil practice on the side.

The new court seat was an attractive option, he said, because he and his advisers “felt that this way, it didn t look like we re going after anyone in particular.”



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